Brekar Maul stopped in front of the open doorway of Commander Vyken Dark’s office. “Sir?” He knocked on the door frame as a formality. The commander was seated at his desk, looking at data on a holographic display.
“Come in, brother. Good to see you. Take a seat.”
The big cyborg dropped into one of the chairs directly in front of the desk.
“What’s on your mind?”
“I want to tell you face to face. I’m leaving. It’s been nearly three years, and I still haven’t found my female. I need to go out and try to find her.”
“How?” Vyken’s eyebrows rose with the question.
“I’ve been studying the prewar genetic database, comparing the DNA used to construct my female’s avatar. I ran comparisons with historical data, and people with similar DNA originated in the northeastern Appalachian foothills.”
“That’s in overlord territory….”
“That’s why I’m going in quietly on foot. I have planned my route through mostly rural territory, and I intend to keep a low profile.”
“This late in the year, you could get into some harsh weather in those hills.”
“No worse than some of the worlds they dropped us on during the war. That’s all the more reason I should go. My female could be somewhere out there in danger…. Or, I could already be too late…. Besides, if Dagger happens to find her before I do, he can contact me on the net.”
“You know I hate to see you go. The five of us have been together a century.”
Brekar shook his head. “But, I’m the only one without my female. I’m happy for you all, but I am not happy to sit around and wait.”
“The odds are not good that you will cross her trajectory.”
“They are even worse that she will appear at my door,” Brekar said. “I have a feeling, no matter how illogical it sounds. She needs me to find her.”
“It could be more logical than you think. Jolt and Iris have a psychic connection. To this day he isn’t sure whether he actually heard her call for help or felt it in his mind.”
“I remember. It could be that same sixth sense that saved our asses more than once.” Brekar paused, searching for words to express his feelings. “I feel like I just need time to myself. Unlike the marine rangers you sent out west, we never took any chill time on Phantom before we came back and jumped right into the fray. Chicago was nearly as bad as a war zone when we got here. That’s why I’m just going to walk it.”
Vyken nodded. “I understand. You’ve certainly earned a break. Let us know how you’re doing from time to time.”
“I will.” Brekar nodded and made himself stand to leave.
Vyken stood, too and nodded. “I hope you find her, Brekar. You will be missed.”
“It’s not like I want to leave. Our team is the only family I’ve ever had, but I want what you all have, a mate and offspring. I’ll let you all know how it turns out.”
“I hope you find her.”
Brekar had been walking the country for a month before crossing into Overlord Territory. He only knew that because he pinged a communications satellite for the coordinates he had reached. He was in the hills of what once was West Virginia, a half mile from a farm.
Pausing on the crumbling highway for a moment, he debated whether to approach the farm or skirt around it undetected. People got spooked when strangers approached their homes or even villages. Brekar didn’t blame them. Human trafficking was still prevalent in overlord country, but not so much on the western side of their territory.
They called themselves the Overlord Conglomerate of North America. Each little kingdom had its own enforcers, mainly along the East coast. The towns and rural areas mostly fended for themselves.
Walking away from Vyken and the rest of my cyborg family was hard. But staying wasn’t any easier when they all had mates and were making offspring. It only seemed to drive home the reality that I had no mate or prospects.
For the first few hours, I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other in long even strides. The farther I moved away from the city, the quieter it was.
I started noticing how green trees and fields stretched miles ahead on all sides. For every farm I passed, only one in ten was occupied. The Mesaarkans only bombed the major cities, but the damage rippled out into the rural areas almost immediately.
Mass communication was gone, power grids failed, and the digital credit system crashed. Supply chains were broken, and most people survived by their wits or were self-sufficient preppers and farmers who grew and preserved their own food. Or hunted game to supplement their food stores.
They also needed to protect themselves and their families from scavengers and looters who would try to take what they had by force. Survivors from the cities had moved into farm country once resources ran out, preying on people for their supplies.
Some rural towns and villages fared better because they banded together and defended themselves. Knowing what Earth once was and seeing it now made me sad and angry. We fought long and hard for the Federation, but we couldn’t prevent this.
The Mesaarkans meant to wipe humanity out of the galaxy. But we stopped them long enough for the Wholaskans to broker peace. We don’t know how they did it. We just knew that we were all bone tired and weary of fighting.
After that, reining in the gangs in Chicago was almost a vacation. I just thought my female would turn up among all those we rescued. I finally decided to look for her myself.
After leaving Commander Dark, I walked for forty-eight hours straight. In combat, we were used to going a week at a time without sleep, sometimes longer with stims. I passed two occupied farms and walked through a ghost town during that time. The other farms in various states of disrepair were empty. I doubt anyone noticed.
I stopped and took shelter in an abandoned house when it started to rain. The windows were gone, and scavengers had taken anything of value. Shrugging off my pack and sitting on the floor by the wall, I took out my water bottle and a couple meal bars.
I drank my fill and munched on the first meal bar while checking chatter on the cyborg network. It was mostly routine communications between protectors and progress reports on various projects. I heard nothing that required my concern.
Although I could have gone on in the rain, I decided to get some rest, setting up my micro guard to warn and wake me if an intruder came.
Nothing happened. I woke up seven hours later, and the rain had stopped. It was dark, but cyborgs don’t need much light to see well, so I gathered my things and walked southeast. The clouds had cleared away, and I could see easily under the star-filled sky and moonlight.
Had I kept up my initial pace, I could have reached my destination in a month. As I got nearer my target destination, I stopped at every occupied farmstead and village, hoping to find her. Nearly everywhere I went, I was drawn into some problem people needed help fixing.
Brekar Maul, a cyborg warrior, would have just pushed on, focusing solely on the mission. But I wasn’t that cyborg anymore. I’d spent three years rescuing and helping people for the North American Civil Restoration Enclave. I learned to care and recognize how I could help get things done.
The overlords had done nothing for the people in the cities, let alone the rural villages and towns. They only showed interest in people under their rule when they needed more workers in their sex and gambling trades or to work their farms.
Sometimes, I ran off the gangers trying to round up new workers. Other times, I helped them fix things like power stations and farm equipment.
I met a lot of females who showed interest in making me theirs, just not my female. I explained about cyborgs and genetic mates—how we were made only to breed with one specific genetic mate. Some of those times, I wished it weren’t true. So many of them were sweet and beautiful, yet I felt no attraction. Knowing thousands more cyborgs were looking for mates, too, I recorded the females’ DNA profiles for the database before I moved on.
They could certainly find happiness with some male, just not this one.
With all the layovers along the way, I never reached the target zone until after the first winter storm. It wasn’t just a little whiteness that barely covered the grass. We had wind-driven, heavy snowfall for two days, then a steady shower of big, thick flakes. By the time it was over, I was wading through knee-deep snow.
The cold was not a problem for a cyborg, nor was the snow. It was more of an annoyance. I plowed through. At least no one was shooting at me.
I got shot a lot while we were working in Chicago. The gangers had projectile pistols with bullets that would barely pierce our skin, but they stung like hell when we’d get hit by a barrage of them.
Surprisingly, no one had shot at me in my travels. One woman had pointed a shotgun at me, but I convinced her I meant no harm. Although I carried my ion rifle for emergencies, I kept it broken down in my pack. Since I was traveling illegally in overlord territory, I wanted to keep a low profile. Instead, I carried an old projectile rifle in a sling outside my pack.
The satellite map of the area showed a house and some outbuildings in the direction I traveled. The route might have once been a road. The open path through the forest seemed to indicate a road covered in two and a half feet of snow.
I heard a dog barking before I spotted the break in the woods, revealing the small homestead I sought. As it came into view, there was a big, fluffy, mixed breed worrying over something in the snow. Then it would stop and tug at something it couldn’t move.
Curiosity piqued, and I waded closer. “What do you have there, boy?” I asked softly as I approached slowly. Then I saw her lying in the snow, so still, I had to watch closely to see whether she was breathing. The dog growled at me as I moved toward them.
I wasn’t afraid of him because I knew he couldn’t do much damage, but I didn’t want to hurt him. Seeing how he was guarding the female; he must be important to her.
“Don’t worry, fella, I’m not going to hurt your human.” While I spoke softly, I scanned the female to see whether she was injured or ill.
Apparently, she was injured and ill from an infection. She’d be feverish if she were not lying in the cold snow. As she was, her temperature was lower than normal. Pieces of firewood on the ground above her indicated she was carrying it to the house when she fell or passed out.
Her dog made plaintive sounds as I hunkered down to pick her up. Turning her over, I caught her scent, and it stunned me. I knew before I scanned her the second time that she was my genetic mate, and she was beautiful. My cock knew it, too, but this wasn’t the time.
Nor was it how I hoped to find her. I scooped her up and carried her to the rundown house. The door was ajar like she expected to be right back. It was cool inside but not as cold as outside. The home was large, but the female only used the kitchen and the living room.
A bed sat in the corner beyond the sofa, and a small wood stove was barely heating the room.
I set her on the couch because her clothes were covered in snow. I needed to get them off her before putting her on the bed.
Before I did that, I shrugged off my pack and dug inside for my med kit. A bolus of universal nanites should fix her damage. I took out a full syringe and squirted the contents up her nose. It made her cough, but she didn’t awaken.
I stripped off her jacket and discovered her left forearm wrapped in a cloth bandage. I would check that when I got her wet clothes off. Untying the drawstring on her pants, I never thought this would be how I undressed my female for the first time.
Sliding them down her shapely legs, I had to stop and pull off her boots, which she wore without socks. Her feet were ice cold, so I knelt before her and rubbed them to warm them. Inevitably my eyes perused her lovely legs and stopped at the juncture of her thighs, covered with makeshift panties held in place by drawstrings at her hips.
Then I forced my gaze up to her face. She had an oval face framed by shoulder-length, dark brown hair.
While breeding her could give her more nanites to repair her damage, I would never consider it without her consent. Besides, I carried several boluses in my med kit.
Giving myself a mental shake, I stood and carried her to the bed, covering her with three worn blankets. Checking the wood stove, there was a bed of coals on the bottom, which would extinguish if not fed more dry wood.
Still snowing outside, I noticed the trail from a shed to where I found her. Guessing that’s where she kept the wood, I went there. The pile was too small for this time of year, but there was enough for a few days. I took a big armload into the house and split off some kindling with a small hatchet beside the wood rack. Once that caught fire, I added some logs. I filled the stand with the next load and checked on my female.
Turning back the covers, I unwrapped her arm to reveal a long, infected gash in her forearm. The arm was red and swollen, clearly infected. Taking out an antibacterial aerosol from the med kit, I sprayed it on the wound to help the nanites accelerate the healing process.
As the room was warming up, I left her injured arm on top of the covers. There was nothing else I could do for her but wait. A medic would likely have injected fluids, but I had nothing like that in my med kit. I had long run out of meal bars, so I went to her kitchen to see what I could find to make for her.
I found some dried beans in the cupboard and potatoes, beets, and carrots in a bin by the sink. I tried the manual pump and got enough water to clean the vegetables. I skipped adding the dried beans because they would take too long to cook. I found a jar marked green salt in the cupboard and another with dried onion bits.
Cleaning the vegetables and cutting them up, I covered them with water in the pot from the sink and seasoned them with green salt and onion bits.
There was a wood cook stove in the kitchen, but no fire. I decided to use the wood stove in the living room to cook the soup. Setting the pot on the cooking plate, I added wood to keep the fire up while it cooked.
“Who are you? What are you doing in here?” the female demanded weakly.
I turned to face her. “Brekar Maul. I found you lying in the snow unconscious. So, I brought you inside and treated you.”
“What are you even doing here in the middle of a snowstorm? How did you get here?”
I wanted to say so many things. She was my mate, but to her, I was an intruder. “I’ve been traveling the area, looking for someone… I was in the war that nearly destroyed Earth. I came back to help rebuild and find my genetic mate.”
“Are you a cyborg?”
“You know about cyborgs?”
“My great grandfather told me stories… How they created cyborg super soldiers to fight the war with the aliens that attacked Earth.”
“Yes, I am one of them, and I promise I’m not here to hurt you.” I moved closer to her bed so she could see me better by the light coming in through the window beside it.
She had beautiful blue eyes, shades lighter than my own. They widened a little as she looked up at me.
“Will you tell me your name?”
“I am pleased to meet you, Delia,” I responded, checking myself before I said too much. I felt nervous and excited, thrilled to have found her at last, afraid I would blurt it all out and frighten her. Despite what my body wanted, she was in no condition to breed.
“I supposed you undressed me as well….”
“Only what was wet. Your body temperature was too low, and I couldn’t put you in bed with wet clothes on.” I paused as she nodded, but with a slight frown. “That was quite the cut on your arm. How did that happen?” It was time to change the subject.
“Caught my boot on the way up the back porch steps with a load of wood and fell… Raked my arm over a rusty nail head sticking up. I cleaned it with soap and water, but it still festered.”
“That’s what made you sick. It got infected and spread in your body.”
“I figured that, but the herbs I tried didn’t help. The snow came early, and I couldn’t pick any more.” She paused to look at her arm. “You took the dressing off… Wait a minute… The swelling and redness are gone, and it’s healing. You did that.”
It was more a statement than an accusation.
“I just used the normal stuff in my field med kit. Nanites and a healing agent.”
“You just saved my life. I could feel myself getting sicker and sicker. I could barely make it to the woodshed and back, and then I didn’t.”
“Your dog barking got my attention. I wasn’t sure he would let me near you. I told him I wouldn’t hurt you, and he let me help you.”
“Teddy is a good boy. He may not have understood the word, but he could sense your intention.”
“He is an impressive canine… some kind of shepherd mix?”
“I think so.”
“Now that you are awake let me get you some water. You need fluids. I put on a pot of vegetables, but it will be a while before it’s ready.”
“Some water would be great. Cups are in the right-hand cupboard over the sink.”
I watched him retreat into the kitchen. He was gorgeous—broad shoulders, muscular arms, tight ass, and muscular thighs. I could hardly believe he was here in my rundown home. The way my grandfather talked about them, cyborgs were legendary. A sophisticated merging of genetics and technology, built to save Earth and the Federation.
I couldn’t imagine him finding his genetic mate out here in the middle of nowhere. It had been nearly a year since I’d seen another person. That was my annual trip to my nearest neighbors, twelve miles away.
They were an older couple who made soap to trade for other things. I made baskets and grew vegetables I traded for a year’s supply of bar soap.
These days, there weren’t that many neighbors left. Several farms between mine and theirs were abandoned before I was born. I wished I could leave, too, but I had no idea where to go. My only mode of travel was my own two feet.
We’d had a horse when my parents were still alive, but she died three years ago at thirty.
Brekar was back in less than a minute with the water, so I sat up to drink it. He looked very concerned as he handed me the cup of water. Our fingers brushed as I took it from him, and a frisson of attraction rippled through me.
“Thanks.” I stared into the cup, uncomfortably aware of the heat rushing to my cheeks. Putting the cup to my lips, I drank deeply, thinking a woman would have to be dead not to find this handsome cyborg attractive.
I probably looked pretty rough after being sick for almost two weeks. I’d been doing the bare minimum to stay alive as I got weaker and weaker every day. I had just begun to face the reality that I would probably die sooner than later.
I drank until the cup was empty. Even if I wasn’t the woman for him, maybe he would agree to take me somewhere more civilized. Looking up at him, I felt mesmerized by the intensity of his gaze.
“What?” I frowned as I offered the empty cup back to him.
“You have no idea what it means to me to finally find you.”
“Me? What do you mean?” My heart stuttered in my chest. He was looking at me like I was beautiful and precious.
He took the cup and set it on the table beside the sofa. Turning back to me, he took my hand and hunkered beside the bed, looking into my eyes, searching for words. As I caught his spicy, masculine scent, a wave of attraction rushed through me, and I knew I wanted him. How did I know?
I had never been with a man at twenty-seven years old, but I knew right then that I wanted Brekar. Then I realized that was the longing I saw in his eyes. Could it be?
“Delia Wells, you are my genetic mate, the only female with whom I can breed and make offspring,” he blurted like he couldn’t hold it in any longer. “I am your cyborg.”
“Omigod!” As I looked back at him, tears filled my eyes. I’d been alone so long, working daily, struggling to grow and gather enough food to stay alive. Then this big, handsome cyborg comes into my life out of nowhere, telling me he is mine.
I reached out and put my hand over his, tears spilling down my cheeks. I was suddenly terrified; this was all a dream. It was too much like the fairy tale grandma used to tell us about the handsome prince coming to take Cinderella away from a life of drudgery.
“Oh no,” Brekar murmured. “Don’t cry. I won’t rush you or make you do anything you don’t want. I had to tell you. I just couldn’t keep it in any longer.”
“Please tell me you’re real!” I pulled my hands from his and held his face between my hands. His skin was warm, and he smiled, putting his hands over mine.
“I’m as real as you are.” He got up, picked me up, blankets and all, then sat on the bed, holding me on his lap.
“It’s okay, Delia,” he soothed, wrapping me in his arms.
Then, I really started blubbering with my face pressed into his shoulder. Despite what he said, I was still not sure he wasn’t a hallucination I’d conjured in my fevered state. Even before I scraped my arm, my mental outlook had been deteriorating. Except for my trip to my neighbor’s farm months ago, I hadn’t seen or spoken to another human being since.
If not for Teddy, I might have given up when Bella, our horse, died.
Today, I remembered going to the shed for wood and starting back to the house with it. The next thing I remembered was waking in bed with Brekar adding wood to the wood stove. I wasn’t even sure he was really there. I had resigned myself to spending the rest of my life alone. After the infection started, I didn’t think it would be that long.
Months later, when I would look back on it, I’d begun to feel like I was just waiting to die. And in comes Brekar with a reprieve.
He just held me, rocking me in his arms, murmuring, “I’ve got you. Go ahead, let it out.”
I clung to him and cried. Then when I finally calmed down, I was embarrassed by my breakdown. What he must think, this big strong cyborg who’d fought in a war on distant planets.
“I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to fall apart like that. I’ve lived here alone for a long time. My parents died five winters ago. I wanted to leave here but didn’t know where to go.”
“You’ve had to be strong to survive alone for so long. But that’s over now. I’m here.”
I knew beyond a doubt that I was right to come looking for her. Life had been hard for her alone, with no friends or family. The utter loneliness had damaged her, and the infection would have killed her without intervention. But she would have frozen to death before that.
I’d almost lost her before I found her.
“Am I really your genetic mate?” she asked shyly, glancing up at me, her arms still wrapped around me. I was basking in the feeling.
“You are.” The scent of her pheromones made my cock stiffen under her bottom. I hoped she wouldn’t notice. Although I knew she was my mate, she was not physically or emotionally ready to breed. I was so happy to have found her; I knew I could wait for the rest.
“Oh, my.” She shook her head. “You must be so disappointed. I know I look awful. My hair is all stringy, and I needed a bath, but I just didn’t have the strength to carry a pot of water to the stove to heat or go upstairs to hunt for clean clothes. These are so old they might fall apart if I could wash them.”
“You are still beautiful to me.” I stroked her dark hair. “We can fix all of that. I have a friend who lives about a hundred miles west. I’ll contact him and see if he can send someone to get us out of here.”
“Yes, of course. Do you have any other animals besides the dog?”
“Should I ask?”
“When the chickens stopped laying, I ate them.”
“That makes sense,” I said, stroking her tangled hair, wishing I could have gotten here sooner. But it wasn’t until the last few days that the feeling she needed me became much stronger.
“Were you able to keep up with the chores before your accident?” I asked, trying to gauge how long she had been sinking into depression.
“Up until when the leaves started to turn. Everything in the garden came late, and getting that canned and dried put me behind on stocking the wood pile. The wood in the shed should have been moved to the porch well before my fall. I just never caught up.”
“Do you have any power tools?”
She shook her head against my shoulder. “Our solar panels are intact, but the batteries don’t charge anymore. Our windmill got hit by lightning, and we couldn’t fix it. That happened before my parents died.”
“What happened to them?”
“They got sick one summer, and it just worsened. Dad died first, and Mom a few weeks later. None of the herbal remedies in the books seemed to help. I don’t even know how I never got sick.”
“Did they have contact with other people?”
“Only the neighbors, the same ones I trade with. When I went to see them in the spring, they were still alive.”
“It could have been something spread by insects. There’s probably nothing you could have done without modern medicine.”
The cover on the pot of vegetables cooking on the woodstove started to rattle.
“You need to eat something. Do you remember the last time you ate?”
“Yesterday. I was getting wood to cook something and warm up the house. I had some canned venison in the cellar, but I needed to be warm first.”
I nodded, slipping an arm behind her knees; I lifted her and set her on the bed while I checked the food. “I make no promises about the flavor, but I think it will be edible.”
I went to the kitchen to get the bowls and spoons I’d set out earlier when I was gathering utensils to prepare the food. When I returned to dish it up, Delia had put her pillow behind her and was sitting in bed. Her pants were still drying over a chair near the woodstove.
Although the room temperature had risen, it would have been chilly for her to sit at the small dining table with bare feet and legs. Dishing up the vegetables, I paused to taste from my bowl. The broth was bland but contained enough salt to make it palatable, and the vegetables were tender.
I could have gone several weeks without food, but I couldn’t pass the opportunity to share my first meal with my mate. Satisfied that it was edible, I gave Delia her bowl and grabbed a chair from the dining table to sit by her bed.
I watched her take a spoonful of broth and blow on it to cool it before tasting it. She nodded and gave me a smile. “Not bad… Right now, it tastes pretty darn good.”
“It will help replenish your fluids and electrolytes,” I told her.
While we ate in silence, I took that opportunity to call my brother Jolt. Since I wanted to get Delia to a real medic as soon as possible, I needed to arrange transport. (to be continued)
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